NY Mirror

Excuse me, but how are we supposed to find Bin Laden when we can't even track down Dick Cheney? That's been just one of the myriad of sick thoughts engulfing my mind during wartime, a situation that truly preys on my last nerve.

Of course things have started looking up—burkas already seem so last season—but even as the Taliban tumbles, anxiety continues to taint the everyday experience. Let me back up a little, to September 11, when New York became a stunned, alienated metropolis right out of a sci-fi movie, with an atmosphere of thick dust, a backdrop of overlapping flyers screaming out for missing people, and a populace of survivors walking in circles, some breaking into crying jags without warning, the rest stumbling about in an impenetrable daze. The downtown skyline, which was so majestic, suddenly looked a tad too similar to that of Pittsburgh or Milwaukee, the demolition reflecting our pain while threatening to make New York City second-rate and defeated. But then came the response: caring, dedication, restoration, and charity, all reminders of why this town is a kick-ass capital you can screw, but you can't fuck with!

Alas, since wartime brings out the best and worst in people, some truly rotten behavior was just around the (barricaded) corner. The most heinous offender may well have been me; I spent way too much time worrying about when my trivial lifestyle would resume (immediately, it turned out) and kvetching about how, when AIDS first came around, no one gave a shit about that devastation, since the victims were practically considered deserving! (But pitting tragedies against one another won't accomplish anything, I learned—just take each new horror afresh. Besides, I'm not that proud of my own initial response to AIDS.)

My runners-up in shame were the freaks who wanted to see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil, and basically do nothing. You know, the righteous, flag-waving thought police who seriously said stuff like "Bill Maher and Susan Sontag should shut the fuck up. We've got to squelch any internal dissent so we can concentrate on fighting to preserve our democracy!" (And they said irony was dead.) Their brethren in ignominy were the folks obsessed with erasing problematic images from pop culture—you know, the worrywarts who snipped out representations of the towers and references to terrorism—absurdly discarding reminders of both good and evil, sort of the way Joan Crawford trimmed her exes out of photo albums. And alongside those denial queens were the worst-case scenarists who were even willing to take themselves out of the picture. These nervous nellies stayed home in fear during the Halloween parade, thereby sticking a razor blade in the Apple—as if our spirits and economy weren't suffering enough! Again, the terrorists won big-time (though a well-meaning socialite did recently call around, trying to organize a visit to the hard-hit Chinatown, generously cooing, "After all, they're New Yorkers too!").

And the zaniness kept on coming, as racial profiling became a popular response, especially at airports, where, if you have an olive complexion or a "funny" name, you can be taken into a private room and asked to drink from your water bottle. (Of course, if you're a kamikaze, you'd gladly do so anyway.)

Once the anthrax hit, fear truly divided us, and the country was awash in extra doses of panic and sensationalism; no doubt as Bin Laden sat back, laughing, and saying, "I can't even take credit for this one!" The government's blanket calmings on the subject only made us more frantic, especially since the cable channels were taking the opposite, screeching approach, and among all of them, no one could tell us just what to do about this unimaginable new horror. We were all learning along with Bush, though each new "Make no mistake about it . . . " failed to quell our misgivings, especially since we couldn't quite hear him in our gas masks and bodysuits!

The friendly neighborhood postman was suddenly in a Hefty bag and handing us our letters with ice tongs. And if you opened an envelope in public, people screamed and started running to the nearest shower stall. Their anxiety rubbed off more than any powder does, and gripped by contagious dread, I started wondering if it's really worth dying just to open some crappy press release for a celebrity photo op. (Answer: Yes. This is what I do, and I'll keep doing it, thank you, oh Taliban masters. Besides, when a paycheck arrives, you'd be amazed at how brave a person can become.)

But just open a newspaper and you felt assaulted anyway. Designer Wolfgang Joop made moronic remarks that implied we deserved the attack because the towers represented "capitalist arrogance"—this from a man who's made a fortune out of selling overpriced clothes and cologne—but again, such views are protected, as are Richard Gere's, as are those of the war protesters Chelsea Clinton yelled at, as are the opinions of Chelsea Clinton herself. But they're all dumb!

So let's just try to be rational (and stop rejoicing when a plane crash looks like it's only the result of mechanical failure). And while acknowledging their achievements, let's stop painting all men in uniform as impossibly superhuman—that won't even do them any good. But most of all, let's quit with all the irony funerals, since I have so many more examples of its renaissance that irony is clearly the new lambada. To wit: You can't bring tweezers aboard a plane, but just recently you could show up with knives and a loaded gun and be greeted with "Right this way, sir." Also, celebs got guided tours of Ground Zero (and Jack Nicholson even got to play with a crane), while victims' loved ones were only being shown red tape, hard luck, and the back of the bus. More irony? Reports that the beloved fire chaplain, Father Mychal Judge, was gay provoked outrage, but meanwhile, the Feds were awkwardly speculating as to whether demonic hijacker Mohamed Atta was a sister! And the same people who were angry at those gay Father Mychal reports ran around reminding everyone, "He was in AA!" And in perhaps the best example of irony's triumph, a gay guy heroically helped divert one of the hijacked planes, but if he'd lived, he wouldn't have been allowed to give blood!

Irony's even king on Broadway, where dark classics like Hedda Gabler and Dance of Death have survived largely because they're being played like sitcoms. And Hollywood power brokers anxiously started meeting with the government to forge a "patriotic" plan, forgetting once again that we're fighting for the right to have a free culture. Of course officials loudly insisted that they weren't asking for propaganda, but I'm sure that was just propaganda.

But what the heck, I'm thrilled to live in this great land of opportunity—even if I do get a little nervous when Bush malapropically says stuff like "nucular." (I guess grammar's not important when you're tearing new holes in the Taliban.) Don't be mad—my views are protected too. Make no mistake about it.

musto@villagevoice.com

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